Witchy Winter – Snippet 22

“I thought with time she would forgive me, and indeed, when she eventually learned the truth she might come to see me in a heroic light, or at least a tragic one. Alas, time was not to be given to me. On hearing of Richard’s death, the earl’s mind snapped. His men came to take me the very next day, and I fled, alone.”

“Didn’t you fear Nathaniel was in danger from a madman?” Sara asked.

“The earl is trapped in a maze of his own sorrow,” Bill said. “But he keeps his word.”

“My brother is in Johnsland.”

“Likely. And likely attached to the earl’s household still, and being raised with his own sons, legitimate and otherwise. Riding, shooting, and mastering the other manly arts of the Chesapeake.”

Sarah was quiet, considering. “And the third?”

“I can tell you little,” Bill said. “She’s a girl. Margaret Elytharias Penn. I didn’t notice any . . . irregularities about her person, though I saw her only momentarily, and swaddled. And she was taken by a friend and confidant of your mother named Montserrat Ferrer i Quintana.”

“A Spaniard?” Cal asked.

“A Catalan,” Sarah said. “They all carry two family names.”

“A Catalan. On her mother’s side, once noble, and Montse still gets treated as a kind of gentlewoman among some of the Catalans, despite her profession.”

“Sir William has a grudge against certain occupations,” Cathy murmured.

“I am a man of prejudices, I admit,” Bill said. “But I’m learning.”

“What was her trade?” Alzbieta asked.

“Montse is a smuggler and a pirate,” Bill said. Her ship, La Verge Caníbal, is the terror of customs men and small merchants from New Spain to Ferdinandia.”

“She was a confidant of my mother?” Sarah smiled.

“To the scandal of some, it’s true,” Bill said. “Your mother was not a staid person, whatever you may see in the intaglios.”

Sarah laughed. “And do you know where Margaret is?”

“I do not,” Bill said. “La Verge Caníbal has always ranged over great distances. The girl could be in Miami as easily as in Memphis. Or just as easily in Barcelona, for that matter.”

Jake had finished his examination of the stylized grooves and now piped up. “Will Your Majesty be sending me or Mrs. Filmer to recover your brother?”

“You or Mrs. Filmer?” Sarah asked. “Those are my choices?”

Jake shrugged. “Bill is needed to command the troops. Calvin wouldn’t leave even if you ordered him to.”

“I’m jest doin’ like the Elector told me,” Cal muttered.

“You need the help of the Cahokians to find your way to your throne. That leaves me and Mrs. Filmer.”

“I cannot,” Cathy said quickly. “Not in Johnsland.”

She avoided Bill’s questioning look.

“I wouldn’t readily part Sir William and Mrs. Filmer.” Sarah smiled warmly. “I suppose that means you have the job, Jake.”

Jake bowed.

“But let’s consider whether now is the right time.” Sarah turned to Alzbieta, who looked unsettled. “Tell me how to prosecute my claim.”

“Your Majesty,” she said. “The goddess decides.”

“I ain’t e’er quite figured this part out,” Cal said sourly. “Youins Christians, or ain’t you?”

“We read the Bible,” Uris said.

Cal scratched his head. “That don’t exactly sort out the question for me. Jews read the Bible, and I b’lieve they read it in the Caliphate, too.”

“Some of us read the Bible,” Yedera said. “I am the daughter who never came into this world. Therefore, I am not subject to this world’s rules.”

Cal threw up his hands in disgust.

“How does the goddess decide?” Sarah asked.

Alzbieta looked about them, at the thirteen standing stones, and beyond, at the sea of green forest that stretched out at their feet, to the snaking brown Mississippi River in the west. “The goddess of light gives birth to her child at the turning of the seasons. At the moment of greatest darkness, the child of light, the Beloved, comes bringing new hope.”

“You don’t mean a physical birth,” Sarah said.


“The winter solistice,” Sarah continued. “If the goddess chooses a queen, we expect it to be at the winter solistice. Late December, when the days are shortest.”

Cal snorted. “You mean Christmas? Here we go again. “Your child of light wouldn’t be Jesus, would it? Malachi says the sun of righteousness’ll arise with healin’ in his wings. And that’s Jesus, the beloved son.”

“Beloved is a title,” Alzbieta said softly.

Cal furrowed his brow. “Not as I ever heard.”

“Just ask Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim,” Alzbieta shot back. “And Malachi really says the sun will have healing in her wings, in Hebrew. Are you so sure that’s Jesus?”

“Ancient languages,” Sarah murmured.

Calvin’s jaw worked wordlessly a few times. “Well, I ain’t able to match you Hebrew for Hebrew,” he admitted finally, “but Isaiah says unto us a son is born, and the son shines light on those as walked in darkness. You tellin’ me the Hebrew in Isaiah really says daughter?”

Alzbieta shook her head. “It says son. Though of course, it doesn’t say that the son is the light.”

Cal plowed ahead. “Not to mention old Zacharias in Luke calls Jesus the ‘dayspring,’ which I always reckoned had to mean the dawn in Hebrew.”

“It means dawn,” Alzbieta agreed. “In Greek.”

“Greek.” Cal threw up his arms, flustered. “Now are you tellin’ me Malachi ain’t talkin’ about Jesus as the sun risin’ with healin’?”

“I’m not telling you anything, Calvin,” she said. “I’m only asking the question.”

“Jerusalem.” Cal retreated into silence.

“Be careful, Your Holiness,” Bill drawled. “Calvin Calhoun may appear merely to be an enthusiastic New Light bible-thumper, but he’s also a fighting man to be reckoned with, tomahawk in hand, and a crack shot with the Kentucky rifle.”

“He is also a skilled hand with the lasso,” Cathy added, “and no respector of persons. I myself witnessed him capturing the Chevalier of New Orleans in a lariat and hog-tying the man. And he’s my favorite cursing man east of the Mississippi.”

Cal’s flush of frustration became a blush of embarrassment. “I ain’t none of those things. Hell, I ain’t even much in the way of New Light, I can’t generally quote you chapter and verse and I don’t know my Hebrew from my home brew. I’s jest . . . surprised, is all. Jerusalem, iffen one child in every three hundred and sixty-five can share Jesus’ birthday, I don’t see any reason why Sarah can’t share it, too.”

“Where does she choose?” Sarah asked. “I assume I can’t just sit here and wait for Christmas.”

“The Temple of the Sun,” Alzbieta said.

“That sits upon Cahokia’s largest and most prominent mound, Your Majesty,” Bill explained.

“The sun?” Sarah asked. “Is she not rather the moon?”

Alzbieta Torias’s answering smile was sly. “Build ye a temple to the greater light, and set therein a throne for the serpent. And let the throne have seven lights for those who would climb thereon.”

“That ain’t in the Bible,” Cal muttered.

No one contradicted him.

“I’m no particular use to you in Cahokia,” Jake said. “I know nothing about any of these Firstborn matters.”

“You’re proving to be of use to me wherever you go, Jake,” Sarah told him. “But I agree, I would rather you go to Johnsland, to try to find my brother and bring him here.”

“A young man fifteen years old, who may resemble you, may be named Nathaniel, and likely has a distinctive ear. Easy.” Jake smiled. “But before I go, I’d like to be of use to you one more time here, if you will permit.”

“Permit? I implore you, Jake. Be of use.”

“In that case, let’s descend. Despite my ignorance of the Ophidians . . . I have an idea about the library.”


“It was the pillars that gave me the final key.” Jacob Hop said. He was thrilled to present his guesses; the excitement almost took his mind off the alien memories that forced their way into his consciousness. “But my thinking started with the Tarock.”

Alzbieta Torias, who had been smiling in rather too smug a fashion for a priestess, lost her grin.

“The Tarock?” Bill snorted. “Hell’s Bells, Jake, next you will be saying your prayers in German.”

Jake thought about that for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Lord hates a man as can’t listen to a new idea, Bill,” Calvin said. “Let’s hear the little Dutchman out.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of that lately,” Bill said.

They stood outside the palace of life. The sun was sinking and the first torches were being lit by Alzbieta Torias’s litter slaves against the night’s darkness.

Jake held up one of the minor arcana, the three of lightning bolts. “Look,” he said. “What do you see around the edges. The border, I mean.”

“Circles,” Cal said.

“Very good. And this one?” He held up the seven of swords.

“Circles,” Cal said again. “This is a fun game. When do we git to squares?”

“In fact,” Jake said, spreading out all the cards of the minor arcana, face toward his friends so they could see the borders, “all these cards have borders that are merely circles, touching at their edges.”

“You ain’t showin’ us all the cards,” Sarah said, dropping briefly into her Appalachee accent.

“Correct.” Jake pocketed the minor arcana and pulled the major arcana from a different pocket. He showed the top card: the Priest. “What do you see on this card’s border?”

“Circles again,” Cal said.

“This time there’s a line through the center of the circle, Cal,” Cathy said, squinting. “And not just a line. A line with a squiggle.”

“Very good.” Jake handed Cathy the Priest. “You hold that one.” Then he drew the next card and showed it: the Hanged Man.

“I know that card,” Yedera said. “It’s Uris.”

Uris grunted and rubbed at the faint scar on his neck from Cal’s lariat, which hadn’t faded.

“Look at the border.”

“Circle,” Cal said. “Line. Same squiggle.”

“Look closer,” Jake suggested.

Cal did, stepping closer to peer at the card and then back to look at the Priest in Cathy’s hand. “I take it back. The Priest has the squiggle above the line, and the Hanged Man has almost the same squiggle, only it’s below the line.”

“I had never noticed these before,” Alzbieta Torias said. “But then, I’m no card reader.”

“Nor I,” Uris agreed. “May I see the rest of the cards?”

Jake handed over the major arcana and Uris thumbed through them. “These are letters, Your Majesty. Each of these cards is bordered with a single letter of the Ophidian writing system, repeated over and over within a circle. What Jake is showing you –” is that the same mark may be made above the line, which makes it an Adam letter, or below, which makes it an Eve letter.”

“Like consonants and vowels?” Sarah asked.

“No, they’re all consonants. Adam and Eve letters of the same shape sometimes represent similar sounds, but not always. The vowels would be marked by indicators opposite the letter, not touching the line. These cards don’t show the vowels.”

“Ophidian has twenty consonants?” Sarah asked.

“Twenty symbols,” Alzbieta said. “One of the letters has a null value. It indicates no consonant, but a vowel only.”

Cal shook his head. “Jerusalem, iffen I ain’t too old to do my A-B-Cs again.”

Uris turned to Jake, looking impressed. “I know you’re a fast learner of languages. Have you mastered our tongue, too?”

Jake shook his head. “I only realized a few minutes ago, up on Irra-Zostim, that these represent writing. I’ve been looking at the Tarocks for a week . . . thinking about the images on them and what they meant. I had noticed the differing borders, but assumed they were decorative. Then this morning, when I wandered through the library, I saw the letter markings, but didn’t connect them with the Tarocks.”

“The palace of life is a holy place,” Alzbieta said. “You weren’t invited in.”

Jake shrugged. “There was no door stopping me.”

“There is custom. And decency.”

“I see,” Jake said. “Invisible doors. Well, I missed those, and entered.”

Sarah had her eyes closed. “The carved repeating knots. Letters. I thought they were ornamental. They reminded me of an Arab device.”

“Yes,” Jake agreed. “And you made nothing of them, and neither did I, Your Majesty. Only Uris and Yedera had both been emphatic that the stones atop Irra-Zostim recorded stories, so when I saw the repeating knots ascending in circles around those stones . . . .” As he spoke, he looked up at the top of the mound, and saw files of chained prisoners being led up for sacrifice, one by one.

“You put two and two together and made four.” Cal shook his head. “I’d ne’er a seen it, Jake.”

“Or maybe I put three and three and four together and made seven.”

Alzbieta gasped.

So he was right. He permitted himself a smile.

“That’s a bit cryptic, Sergeant,” Bill said.

Jake collected the cards from the others and pocketed them again. “I think you’ll find that one key to the library’s organization is simply writing. There are ten rooms, and ten characters representing consonants in Ophidian writing. Depending on which side of the line you place the letter, it belongs to Eve or to Adam. So my first guess would be that each room is marked by one of those characters, and is meant to contain writings whose title, or perhaps subject, begins with the Eve-Adam pair.”

Uris laughed out loud. “Where did you find this fellow, Your Majesty? I’d like another dozen like him.”

“I don’t think there are a dozen like him,” Sarah murmured.

“But there may be another organizational key,” Jake said, “and it’s suggested by the layout of the rooms.”

“Three rows of rooms,” Sarah said. “A row of three on each side, and a row of four in the middle.”

“Which makes ten rooms,” Jake said. “And that matches the alphabet. On the other hand, you will have noticed, as I have, that the Eldritch seem to like everything in sevens.”

“Not everything,” Cal said. “They count by twelve.”